This Is Where It’s Coming from
by Dr. Krysten DeSouza, ND
5-3405 South Millway
Mississauga, Ontario L5L 3R1
Inflammation has become a hot topic in the medical world, and the body of research around it continues to grow. We used to think that arthritis and joint inflammation began and ended in the joints, with no other influences or connections. Today, we see that inflammation in the gut can impact inflammation in joints, increase our risk of diabetes, flare up eczema, and even trigger anxiety and depression in the brain. Things are a little more complex than we expected and definitely take a lot longer to correct, but knowledge is power and awareness is the first step to progress.
So, where does inflammation come from?
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
Poor Digestive Health
60% of your immune system lives in your gastrointestinal tract. These include all the tiny bacteria that you accumulated in your childhood and over the years of exposure to viruses and bacteria. The good ones fight for you and protect you, but the bad ones cause harm and disease. When we experience symptoms such as gas, bloating, heartburn, reflux, constipation, and diarrhea, these are often signs that the bad bacteria have outweighed the good ones and we need to restore the balance.
Chronic illnesses, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), are examples of long-standing inflammation in the digestive tract.
Other than an imbalance in bacteria, gastrointestinal inflammation can be triggered by parasites, low-grade viruses, autoimmune disease, insufficient stomach acid production, and, most commonly of all, stress.
Since the gut is the main entrance point of all nutrients into the body, when inflammation occurs in the gut, digestion and absorption of all nutrients decline and downstream effects in the rest of the body are seen sooner. Therefore, working on the gastrointestinal tract is often the first place to begin treating.
Poor Immune System
Inflammation itself is an immune response. Consider it like a smoke detector in a home that is meant to alert you of a danger. This danger requires immediate action and the larger the danger, the louder the alarm. In the same way, when the immune system fails to recognize something as “normal,” it sends out a signal to create a response and remove the danger as soon as possible. Some of the common symptoms include redness (increasing circulation to the area), heat (because of increased circulation, but can also be meant to kill bacteria), pain (a signal for you to stop using that body part or stop eating if it is in your digestive tract), and swelling (increased fluid to flood the area with immune cells and sweep the toxins into the lymph nodes for investigation).
When our body is experiencing inflammation, it puts the immune system into overdrive, which drastically increases the demand on the body. The less important body functions are put into low-power mode, and resources are diverted elsewhere. Therefore, many other symptoms of inflammation can include fatigue, muscle weakness, and brain fog.
Now for an average person in decent health, these reactions can happen on an undetected level for years. Someone with immune overreactivity, allergies, autoimmune disease, or increased age may experience these effects sooner and much stronger. For many, even smaller things like emotional stress, household chemicals, and viral infections can cause immune overreaction and trigger a unique response.
Eating Too Much of Any One Macronutrient or Any One Food
Macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. We require them in specific amounts to be able to fuel our bodies for whatever tasks we need. The balance between them is key, and too much of any one nutrient or food has the potential to trigger an immune response.
Let’s face it: We’ve all had at least one episode of binging on a particular food in our lives. Whether it be peanut butter, cheese, bread, sugar, or alcohol, at some point, we have overdone it and not felt so great afterward. If the immune system encounters this food over again for many years, it may begin to react to the food. This has been seen often with food-sensitivity testing, in which an individual consumes a food in high quantities and the food is then overrepresented in their diet. More often than not, it shows up on the test and creates a significant change in their symptoms when removed.
Lack of Exercise
This one may speak for itself, but to be frank, exercise increases circulation to muscles and joints, and helps to carry inflammatory cells away from the body. This can be a challenge for those whom inflammation shows up as chronic body pain, because this prevents them from exercising in the first place. However, movement is key, and without it, nothing is going to change in a positive direction.
Abdominal Obesity and Insulin Resistance
Obesity is on the rise in North America, and it is already implicated in the long-term consequences of high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes. Most of our jobs are sedentary office jobs, but though we might be sitting, the high demand of work and pressures from bosses make our jobs less than relaxing. What’s more is that with many businesses being online these days, the demand for work is 24/7 and requires us to be on call and even answer e mails in the night. Our bodies never get a rest, and neither do our adrenal glands. As a reminder, adrenal glands produce cortisol, which is the stress hormone. It is helpful in protecting us from an instant danger but is extremely detrimental to our health when produced in high amounts over a long period of time (say, for example, a 9–5 job over 5–10 years).
There is evidence to suggest that cortisol raises our blood sugar, increasing our need for insulin and our risk for diabetes. It makes us crave sweet and salty foods, especially late in the evening, when we are still too wired to sleep. Then it reduces our quality of sleep, making us groggy, unfocused, and demanding high-sugar diets the next day. The process continues, snowballing into a state of chronic inflammation and further aggravating areas of pre-existing inflammation.
Estrogen Decline and Hormone Imbalance
Now, we’re getting into the good stuff! The two main female hormones are estrogen and progesterone. A delicate balance between both allows for a regular monthly cycle, and it determines ovulation and the ability to carry a pregnancy.
As mentioned above, when the body is in a stressed state, the less important functions go into low-power mode, and resources are diverted elsewhere. Well, the reproductive tract is one of those less-important functions, and one that requires a lot of nutrients when in full function. When stress levels are high, and cortisol is being produced faster than it can be broken down, the body looks for other ways to make cortisol. Progesterone, being on the same lineage as cortisol, is swept away to manage stress, thus throwing off the balance and leading to hormone disruption, changes in cycle, or complete lack of ovulation. Lo and behold, we have a link between stress and hormones!
On another note, a woman going through menopause is subject to an additional kind of inflammation, noted in hot flashes and night sweats. As estrogen levels naturally decline, the body continues to demand more, and this stressed state can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and fatigue.
Environmental Toxicity, Liver Toxicity, and Fatty Liver
Our liver is one of our most important organs of detoxification, and with chronic consumption of alcohol or fatty foods, it can get clouded by toxins and impaired in its function.
If we are unable to eliminate waste products, they will continue to circulate in the blood or deposit in areas we really don’t want them to be. This will then create a constant immune response, until we can clean out the liver and get rid of the waste.
Depression and Stress
When it comes to depression and inflammation, it’s hard to say what comes first. Individuals suffering from depression often have low appetites and may not always opt for the most nutritious foods. We are aware that poor dietary choices can lead to inflammation, and that inflammation in the brain can result in depression. On the other hand, individuals suffering from depression tend to have higher levels of cortisol and insulin, which leads to inflammation, heart fat accumulation, and a high risk of heart disease. The best way to be sure if mood imbalance is affecting overall health is to test Hs CRP levels on your next blood test.
With so many ways to incur inflammation in the body, it is no wonder we have so many health concerns and often see patterns of health concerns presenting together. The good news is that reducing our inflammatory triggers is the best way to initiate a change that will impact the entire body at once.